I was watching the World Series and thinking about Shabbat, about sacred time. I got to this weird connection as I was telling myself that I have to stop watching so much TV.
At this time of year I always tell myself I have to watch less TV. There’s the regular stuff -- West Wing and Jon Stewart, interspersed between reruns of Law and Order. We’re Law and Order junkies. The worst. But we have rules. If we’ve seen it 3 times already, we can’t watch it again. Well, if both of us have seen it 3 times, which makes like 6 times, or if someone we know is on it, or there’s a weird address we want to locate, or it’s a good one with subtle legal complexities and a serious debate about the death penalty between Jack and one of his smart, passionate and oh so gorgeous assistant DA’s. That’s the normal fare.
But now there’s the Playoffs, the League Championships, and the World Series, which makes about a month of maybe 20 more hours a week of obsessive watching. I love it. I love baseball. I love baseball on TV. I watch baseball during the season too, but usually only two or three innings at a time. It’s like restaurants in Italy. They have these long menus with course after course. Usually I just have a meat dish or pasta, salad and some local wine, and it’s plenty. But on the food equivalent of the World Series, like maybe you’re in Montepulciano, the most beautiful hill town in the world, and it’s truffle season, so you go for the whole thing – antipasto, Primi, Segundi, Terza Rima, Quatrocento, Marcello Mastroianni, Gina Lolabrigida, the whole thing. That’s the World Series. As soon as it’s over I'm watching less TV. As soon as it’s over. But now I'm watching.
But watching baseball is totally different from normal TV. It’s soooo slow. It’s like this: nothing, nothing, nothing, something! Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, something!, nothing, nothing, hint of something, then a lot more nothing. It’s like waiting for Messiah. You wait and watch and hope, hoping that in this small universe, this microcosm, the fallible players who stand in for us, and their fallible leaders, will somehow conspire with the fates or luck or the unknown underlying plan that only the kabbalists of baseball can fathom, to create conditions that will in the late innings allow for the arrival of Messiah: Mariano Rivera. The perfect closer. The one you absolutely want in there pitching when you’ve got a one run lead and a guy on second and their best hitter at bat. The one you know will get you out of that jam. Mariano of perfect beauty and grace, on whose arm we ride to the land of milk and honey. That’s what it’s going to be like when Messiah arrives. Or maybe it will be like Aaron Boone hitting a walk-off home run. Sudden stunning utterly unexpected bliss.
I think it depends on if you feel chosen or not. If you feel chosen then its Mariano. You see the moment coming, you sit back and relax and let it wash over you. But if you are unsure about your chosen-ness, if you’re ambivalent about the whole idea, then it will be a sudden ecstatic surprise, it will be Aaron Boone in the last of the eleventh.
But Shabbat, I was thinking about Shabbat. Because baseball gives you all this empty time while Joe Torre is deciding whether to take out Boomer, or move Matsui out or the infield in. Baseball is like Shabbat obviously because it has all this ritual. Anyone who has ever watched Nomar Garciaparra at bat knows all about ritual. It’s like the most obsessive shukling you have ever witnessed. Or a pitcher, any pitcher, going through his motion of checking a runner on first. They all have their form and they all repeat it exactly, as if the motion itself will keep the runner on base. It’s like a desperate prayer – if I only say it perfectly right, then God will hear me and keep my runner on first or even make the miracle of a double play. And it’s so easy to get distracted watching a game … like Shabbat services. For instance, the other night Derek Jeter is at bat. The camera stays on him when he’s at bat and we get a long view of him and the catcher and the ump, but also of that big advertising sign behind home plate, which they’ve digitalized now, so it changes ads every time they want. I'm sure they sell ad space on that sign not just by minutes or innings, but by players. You know, more if its Sammy Sosa up there than if its Karim Garcia. More when Soriano is hitting 330 than when he’s striking out every time. And with Derek up and it’s the world series, you know it’s really expensive. And some genius bought Derek’s at bats. Because Derek has this unchanging between pitch ritual. It starts with the bat in his front hand, his left hand because he hits righty, and the bat is drooping down toward the plate, and then he slowly arcs it back and around until his arm is extended out toward the pitcher and the bat is straight up, rampant, defiant, and there he stops, pauses, while he extends his right arm, hand up back toward the ump as if to let him know he’s not yet ready to receive the pitch. That’s what I always thought he was doing, but this time I noticed that that back arm, his right arm was also pointing straight back to that sign. His left hand is holding the bat straight up in the air and his right arm is pointing toward the sign and on the sign in huge letters it says, ‘VIAGRA.’ Now that’s advertising genius, and I ask you, how do you keep your mind on the game in a moment like that?
Anyway, I'm thinking Baseball is like Shabbat because it’s so slow, so out of time. so useless and wonderful and all about nothing happening. On Shabbat we work at making nothing happen. We pray, we walk, we read, we nap, maybe make love. And we argue about an ancient text that does and does not have anything to do with how we live, and we’re supposed to do all this for its own sake alone, not because we hope to get anything out of it except a sort of bliss that renews us for the struggle of the rest of our lives.
But baseball isn’t like Shabbat in one big way. It isn’t time bound. A game goes on until someone wins. It could be two hours or five. Whitey Ford used to get a bonus if he finished a game in under two hours. Now they want them to go on and on, so they can have more commercials. But no one ever knows how long a game will be. And I love that about baseball in the same way I love the idea of waiting for Messiah. It could be today or it could be tomorrow or in ten years or a thousand, but she’s coming. The one of perfect grace and beauty who will pitch those last six outs and somehow we will all win that one. But Shabbat is time-bound, no matter what, it goes from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday, and I am so grateful to God or whoever made it that way. Because, imagine if every Shabbat was like a baseball game; you had to stay in it until you arrived at some state of grace. I mean some weeks it’s awful, nothing works, I'm frazzled and neurotic and hopeless and no matter how I go through the motions Shabbat does not happen inside me. But it still goes by.
Imagine if I had to pray and rest and study and whatever until I got it right, whatever that is. I would be sunk. The pressure! This way, I just go through it knowing how long it is, how much time I have, and whatever happens happens. I taste heaven or I don’t, and it’s over and I have to go back to work. No pressure. Which I guess is what Shabbat is all about. I have to stop watching so much TV.
© Arthur Strimling